This past Sunday morning I ran a half-marathon. Yes, 13.1 miles. Sounds like a lot of miles? It is.
Anyone who reads this blog knows I'm more of a biker than a runner. So why did I do it? I dunno. Cross-training, I guess.
To dodge Ghana's tropical, near-equatorial heat and ocean-fed humidity, the race started at 6:30 a.m. I had to de-bed at 4:45 to get myself ready and to the starting line. 4:45, people! No small feat for a night-owl.
The starting-line experience was awesome. Surrounded by shipping containers stacked five-high at the port in Tema, Accra's sister city, a hundred dazed runners milled about sporting oh-so-fashionable race numbers pinned to the fronts of their shirts. I made a Ghana milestone for myself, before the race even started, by peeing in a nearby street-side ditch (somewhat screened by the back of a bus stop).
Hey, I had to go. And, if you're a man in Ghana, you gotta pee in a street-side ditch at least once. It's tradition.
The start of the course followed the coast. Waves crashed pleasantly just to my left. Ocean breezes kept things cool. By the 3 mile mark, I was thinking about quitting. Why not just sit on the beach all day? But then I forgot about quitting and just ran.
Running the Accra International Marathon is a unique experience. "It can be kind of like orienteering," a friend said, giving me pre-start advice from his adventures the year before. And he wasn't joking. He had a GPS strapped to his wrist.
In this marathon/half-marathon run, there are no regular race markers. The road is not closed off to vehicle traffic. Water stations can be hit-or-miss. There are no ambulances standing by.
The majority of the course is done on potholed roads, where runners compete with taxis, diplomat-plate SUVs, exhaust-spewing tro-tros (local mini-buses), and the occasional bicycle for road-space; on rutted dirt shoulders, where runners compete with trucks broken down at the side of the road, tro-tros pulling over to pick up passengers, and again the occasional bicycle for shoulder-space; and on busy market sidewalks, where runners compete with pedestrians, sidewalk kiosk sellers, men carrying jugs of water on their heads, and yes the occasional bicycle, for sidewalk-space.
This road-and-shoulder sharing didn't bother me as much as it might have, however. I've done plenty of walking and biking in and around Accra traffic, and I've learned to trust Accra drivers enough to know they won't hit me. They're better drivers than I am - at least in the sense that they can reliably come within six inches of my person and not bash me in the kneecaps with a fender or catch my elbow with their side mirror. This is a skill I wouldn't trust drivers in the US, say, to possess.
But still, the best only-in-Accra moment of the race came at me completely unexpected.
I was on the most challenging part of the run. It was the dropping-tired 9 to 11 mile-mark section, and the racecourse was running straight through the bustling town of Teshie, right down the main market street. I was struggling down the left-hand side of the gritty thoroughfare, constantly in danger of barging into a phone-card seller if I ran on the sidewalk or of being flattened by a pulling-over tro-tro if I ran on the street's margin.
Finally, a policeman directing traffic at an intersection took pity on me. "Run in the middle of the road," he hollered to me, holding up traffic with one hand to let me pass. "It will be safer!"
The thing is: he was right. Traffic was backed up enough to be moving slowly, the road was very well-paved in the middle, and my two-leggedness definitely made me visible among all the four-wheeled madness.
So I ran the last miles of the race following the center stripe, with traffic steaming past in both directions on either side of me. Taxi-drivers yelled encouragement as they drifted by, keeping their side mirrors at least six inches (usually) away from my hips and elbows.
Equatorial cross-training at its best.